Every month during the academic year, Regent University invites intriguing, innovative and influential men and women to campus so they can share what it takes to lead successful businesses and organizations. These Executive Leadership Series (ELS) luncheons are held in the grand ballroom of The Founders Inn and Spa, drawing hundreds of students, alumni and friends from the surrounding area to learn from and be inspired by some of today’s best and brightest leaders.
On Tuesday, February 28, Regent welcomed 2016 Republican presidential candidate and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina as the featured speaker for ELS. Joined by her husband Frank, Fiorina met exclusively with Impact shortly before taking the podium to discuss why she accepted the university’s invitation to speak.
“First, I’m here because Christian leadership can change the world,” she said. “Here’s a place where people are being taught the essence of leadership, the principles of leadership. They’re being encouraged to lead. And we can’t sit back as citizens, as Christians, as Americans, as people and say, ‘It’s someone else’s job.’ Actually, it’s our job to make the world a better place, and that’s what this university teaches.”
Fiorina added, “One of the things I’ll talk about today is how a leader, most importantly, sees possibilities in other people. And the highest calling of a leader is to unlock potential in other people. That’s an inherently Christian idea.”
She noted that Jesus saw and unlocked the disciples’ potential, empowering them to lead others. “If you don’t believe that every person has inherent value and purpose, it’s hard to lead as effectively as you might,” Fiorina explained. “If you don’t believe change for the better is possible, it’s hard to be a leader.”
Born in Texas, Fiorina received a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and medieval history from Stanford University in 1976, and in 1989, earned a Master of Science in management from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. A successful career at AT&T and its spinoff Lucent Technologies led Fortune magazine to name her “The Most Powerful Woman in American Business” in their October 12, 1998, issue — a distinction she held for five years. When named CEO of technology giant Hewlett-Packard in July of 1999, Fiorina became the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. She saved 80,000 jobs and grew HP to 160,000 workers during her tenure, which ended in February of 2005.
In 2010, she ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in California, challenging longtime Democrat incumbent Barbara Boxer. Then, in May of 2015, Fiorina “threw her hat into the ring” again, announcing this time that she would seek the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States. Every bit of that corporate leadership experience and political expertise was on display when she addressed a packed house of more than 600 people at ELS.
“I cannot think of a better place to talk about leadership,” Fiorina told the crowd. “After all, this is a school that believes that Christian leadership changes the world, and I believe that as well. Christian leadership is necessary to change the world. I think that’s because of the nature of leadership and what our faith teaches us.”
Admitting that her rise to CEO was not as “smooth” as her résumé makes it look, Fiorina recalled how a defining moment in her life occurred at the age of eight: “My mother was my Sunday school teacher, and she looked at me and the rest of the class and said, ‘What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of
yourself is your gift to God.’ At the time, those words landed for me.”
Fiorina explained that her mother shared a promise: She had God-given gifts and received a challenge to find them. “Here’s the thing that I have learned over and over and over again in my life,” she stated. “Everyone is gifted by God. Everyone, regardless of their circumstances, has far more potential than they realize to make an impact and make a difference to solve a problem. … Everyone has the desire to live a life of purpose and meaning, and everybody has potential.”
The woman who started her career as a secretary in a nine-person real estate firm and later became the chief executive for a company ranked #11 on the Fortune 500 list captivated her audience during a half-hour ELS speech, followed by a 15-minute Q&A session. Fiorina delivered what amounted to a laser-focused thesis statement on leadership filled with real-world applications and practical takeaways.
“The role of leadership is always to change the order of things, to challenge the status quo,” she insisted. “But you can’t change things successfully unless you bring people along. Change always inspires resistance; it’s part of the process. So to have a change be sustained, you have to bring people along. You literally have to persuade people that the change is for the better and in their interest.”
Fiorina contended that having the big, corner office, the best parking spot, the biggest budget, the largest staff or any number of other corporate “perks” doesn’t mean that you’re leading: “A leader solves problems, and the only way you solve problems is to challenge the status quo. The status quo is a powerful thing. I like to say that change is a little bit like heaven: Everyone wants to go there; nobody wants to die.”
“… A leader challenges the status quo. A leader changes things for the better.” – Carly Fiorina
She continued, “The status quo has enormous power because people are invested in it. And the people who have succeeded in the status quo want to preserve it. … A leader challenges the status quo. A leader changes things for the better.”
When her speech moved into the political realm, Fiorina shared how the campaign trail revealed the extent to which partisan divides are “fracturing” our nation and distressing the American people. “One of the things that I relearned running for president is that most people aren’t political. They don’t get up every morning and rush to the political news. … Most people are just trying to get on with their lives. I think politicians of both parties, leaders of both parties, have to lead and try to have the conversations and the actions be a bit more unifying and less polarizing. Obviously, that’s a tall order. Our politics have been very polarized for a very long time.”
Impact asked Fiorina what her advice as a former CEO would be for students and recent Regent graduates entering the workforce: “My first message to young people is get a job. Any job. Don’t worry about the perfect job. Don’t worry about the job having to use your degree. Just get a job. Because … in any job, you will learn something about yourself, you’ll learn something about other people, and you’ll learn skills that will help you get the next job.”
“Secondly, don’t be afraid to take a risk,” she warned. “The reason people are afraid to take a risk is because they’re afraid they’re going to make a mistake. … Thomas Edison, one of our great inventors and entrepreneurs in this country, said there’s no such thing as a mistake. There’s only learning what not to do a second time. Experience is the best teacher of all. So, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.”
But, most of all, Fiorina encouraged the Regent family to: “Choose to lead. Leadership, in the end, is a choice. It’s a choice to decide you’re going to make a positive difference. … Leadership takes courage; it takes character; it takes collaboration. A leader, to be effective, has to understand that nothing worthwhile happens with somebody acting alone.”